Mass Media as a Socialization Agent in Africa
presented by Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Communications
Elizabethtown College
Core Presentation
February 22, 2001
Semester at Sea, Spring 2001

Note: This is a copy of my working manuscript from the presentation noted above.

Over the last few days we have been discussing development issues and I will continue on that theme by introducing the concept of communication as a development agent and mass media as its delivery system.

For all the faults of American -- and international journalism for that matter -- and as much as we enjoy poking fun at the foibles of today's media coverage ... over coverage in some cases ... we thirst for the news of the day ... to better understand our environment and to understand our role as citizens within our communities.

On these passages between countries the USA Times [a short news wire brief or wire report] and any news magazine or newspaper ... regardless of its age ... becomes a prize.

On deadline journalists attempt to capture for their respective communities some insight into local citizenship. Local being a relative term ... since newspapers like the International Herald Tribune and Financial Times attempt to meet the needs of a world community, while The Cape Times and The Cape Argus and Der Burger attempt to capture the news for a more regional community.

In the U.S., we can trace the roots of journalism to the colonists who settled North America. Similarly, the countries of Africa can also trace their media development through the roots of colonialism.

But IÕm not going to trace all that for you here.

Today I'd like to define development communications, give a very brief overview of the development of mass media in sub-Saharan Africa, and share some current concerns of press freedom in this region.

Media may be defined as the means of communication. But media also comprise the technology of the communication process and the organizations responsible for gathering, processing and transmitting news and information to a mass audience.

Simply, we can define media development as increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the available means of communication.

In 1947 the Commission on Freedom of the Press headed by Robert M. Hutchins detailed the basic responsibilities of the media ... calling for improved communication structures, fewer political and economic obstructions, and more accurate, representative, and higher quality reports and images in global information.

In the Hutchins Commission report titled "A Free and Responsible Press," the mass media are described as a powerful force to either promote civilization or to thwart, debase, and vulgarize civilization and endanger world peace.

Of the Hutchins Commission's suggestions for media responsibility two are of particular concern of international communications. First, was the need to report truthfully about international news and second, was that the media should provide a representative picture of different cultures and nations without stereotyping.

Article 19 of the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been interpreted to define communication and access to information as a basic human right.

Article 19 reads ... "Every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and of expression, which entails the right to be free from harassment for his opinions and the right to seek out, to receive and to communicate, regardless of frontiers and ideas, by whatever means of expression he may choose."

In the years to follow, as the mass media in the United States and other defined "first world countries" were thriving, the mass media in the less developed countries ... especially on the African continent were suffering as a result of poverty, censorship by government control, and poor physical infrastructure.

According to the media studies research of Daniel Lerner, nations do change through the influence of mass communication. The media have the ability to enhance development and social change by providing citizens of a community with a public forum for debate. The media serve three communication tasks in any society: watchman, participant in the decision making process, and teacher. The media broaden horizons, focus attention on issues, raise aspirations, create a climate for development, facilitate attitude change, enhance interpersonal channels, and enforce social norms.

To less developed countries around the world, development communication meant the hopes for improving their mass media systems with a little help from those countries with more developed media systems ... like the United States.

These development efforts were essentially an effort to help nations grow and to assist in nation building through this idea that citizens could be informed and empowered through the media. Since mass media have the advantage of being able to reach many people it was believed that mass communicated information could help develop culture, health, and education practices.

In a very simple sense, development initiatives in the 1960s were an attempt to provide money as an intervention to less developed countries so that they could engage in projects to improve societies and economies.

Money alone would not do the trick. In many instances, government corruption led to the ineffective use of the funds. In other cases, communications systems were developed, but totalitarian and authoritative governments controlled the new communication systems and their content as a means for social indoctrination and seldom took the role of facilitating societal development as originally planned.

Many donor countries turned to operating media projects in less developed countries and providing materials and technology instead of funds ... thus helping to develop the communications infrastructure of the less developed countries.

In the 1970s and 1980s these developmental projects began to dwindle due to donor government funding cuts, cries of cultural imperialism on the part of the less developed nations, and ultimately disagreements with new national communication policies. This left the less developed nations to fend for themselves when it came to further development of their communication systems ... both the physical infrastructure and the practice of free press initiatives.

In terms of nation building, changes are brought about by people, not solely by funds or media. No matter how much people are told what to do or what to believe, without a commitment to the concept of an active role in the communication process, people do not develop and nations do not develop. The media are agents of social change, but do not effect change by themselves.

The improvement of literacy and communication, health, education, standards of living, and even political awareness are key elements in nation building. While leaders of developing countries generally agree with this supposition, the way in which they chose or permit the media to pursue these goals varies greatly. According to Mann Sichalwe, former director of the Zambia Institute for Mass Communication, democratizing the media cannot simply be additional facilities. It must mean broader access to the media by the general public. This means overcoming the traditional barriers to media access of physical infrastructure, as well as social, political, and economic constraints.

In a study of press freedom and government control of the press by international media critic John Merrill, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa ranked in the in the third sector of a five-point scale. What does that measure for press freedom? It indicates that the media in sub-Saharan African countries enjoy some freedom to publish news of the day and select the material for publication without prior restraint by the national governments. Although for a number of these countries, this freedom is still new and fledgling. Reporters are still blocked from some government information and often do not push to get access ... even though the information is supposed to be available to the public. Often reporters continue to censor their work as though working under the old restricted press laws, because it is their routine and easier the manage. But in the end the citizens, their readers, viewers and listeners suffer the lack of information. Merrill estimates that it will take two generations of reporters and formal journalism education in these countries to educate media representative on their rights. Merrill's study puts South Africa, in the lead of the sub-Saharan countries attempting to develop press freedoms.

For the most part, levels of press freedom correspond with levels of democratic development.

In Swaziland, some media are funded by the government, while others are independent and journalists are experimenting with this concept of freedom.

Despite an improved climate for freedom of expression in Angola, a campaign of harassment against journalists continued as early as the year 2000 due to increased investigative journalism practices in the coverage of government issues. Similar cases have been reported in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Currently, Namibia is grappling with the concept of licensing and accrediting journalists, even though the majority of journalists in the country are not formally trained in the media.

Although politicians use journalists and the media to prop up their political images, not much attention is paid to financing media advancement to enable them to operate more smoothly. A few development projects still exist through organizations like VOA and UNESCO. But journalists are still among the lowest paid professionals and are often trained on the job as university journalism programs are scarce.

South Africa and Botswana register high levels of media freedom. In South Africa, with press freedom only a few years old, an executive editor of Der Burger newspaper reported (to a group of SAS students during our field program visit to NASPERS Media) that some journalists are still struggling with government offices over access to information. But the situation is always improving.

A bright spot in all of this? The growth of the Internet has dramatically enhanced citizen access to information and has fostered freer flows of information, often eroding government's ability to control or manipulate the media.

In conclusion, the future of media development and its use as a nation-building and community-building tool for the countries in sub-Saharan Africa is promising ... especially as new technologies increase access to the media and to information for the citizens of the continent.

This page was created by Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D. Copyright 2001.

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